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Collaborative planning in an uncertain world



Corporate planning is difficult in the best of times, let alone in the middle of a global health crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has made strategic planning harder because of economic upheaval, personal stress, work and lifestyle changes, and the unpredictability of everything.

This report explores how companies worldwide conduct strategic enterprise planning—particularly in uncertain times. MIT Technology Review Insights, in association with Oracle, surveyed 860 executives in various departments including finance, supply chain and logistics, human resources (HR), and information technology.

We also spoke in depth with leaders at several companies to learn how they plan and collaborate, from general business processes to their investment in artificial intelligence and cloud-based applications, and how finance, HR, and operations are evolving to support those efforts. The executives share their own processes and help readers identify techniques to adopt. Here are the key findings from our research:

Months after the outbreak, most organizations are still coping with the initial challenges. Half of surveyed organizations are still in the process of dealing with the current emergency, responding to short-term issues and addressing financial resilience, such as staff availability and income disruption. At the same time, some businesses, such as cleaning supplies manufacturers, have seen sales spike precipitously and are struggling to meet demand. Organizations experiencing both sides of the challenge may have ideas about how to move forward, but they have yet to materialize.

Organizations are working on formulating plans to move forward. Nearly a quarter are making the necessary adjustments with a future plan in mind, and another quarter are actively working toward a new plan: 16% have reached a “reimagine the future” stage, and 6% are looking at how their new direction might affect practical matters such as standards and compliance.

Technology is seen as a useful aid in planning endeavors. As a result of the pandemic, more than half of organizations accelerated cloud adoption. This segment is 50% more likely to have addressed pandemic challenges to business, the workforce, and customers. The survey also shows that AI and machine learning have gained the trust of large companies worldwide. And three quarters of respondents expect connected enterprise planning—which combines financial, operational, and workforce planning with cloud-based internet of things, AI, and prescriptive analytics—to improve collaboration and decision-making.

Planning is an all-hands-on-deck effort. All business departments have a part to play in planning for future success, including HR and supply chain—and finance is the glue that bonds them. But for collaboration to work, data can’t exist in silos spread across the business—consistent, accessible, and accurate data drives business planning and execution.

Some organizations are more welcoming to technology than others. A minority, 10%, are reducing their use of cloud technologies as a result of the pandemic. They’re technology laggards in several ways, from keeping HR and finance data in separate silos to eschewing connected enterprise systems in favor of spreadsheets. Such old-school ways may have made the companies weaker; for example, if they have not digitized their businesses, they may lack the insights that would give them more justification to invest at this critical time.

The road to recovery

It’s a huge understatement to say the pandemic upended everything. The worldwide economy has been affected, every industry was blindsided, and most organizations needed to make painful decisions. Others benefited, such as detergent manufacturers, workout equipment companies, and recreational vehicle sellers, but even those faced supply chain challenges.

Yet, organizations must move on. “In this unprecedented new reality, we will witness a dramatic restructuring of the economic and social order in which business and society have traditionally operated,” write McKinsey & Company’s Kevin Sneader and Shubham Singhal in “Beyond coronavirus: The path to the next normal.

After the initial survival-response questions, businesses and individuals are puzzling over a long list of additional concerns: How can we continue to thrive? How will we handle new employee onboarding as we scale? What’s the next market we want to enter? What changes do  we need to make to cope with the long-lasting social effects of the virus?

A survey of 860 business professionals conducted  by MIT Technology Review Insights, in association  with Oracle, shows that after the initial shock, most organizations are hard at work planning, looking for—and sometimes finding—a road to recovery and a return to growth. It also suggests the ones that are the most enthusiastic about cloud and advanced technologies such as AI and machine learning are not only more likely  to get past the roadblocks the pandemic threw up but  to course-correct toward success.

Author Maya Angelou might have been speaking of individuals when she said, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them”—but the sentiment applies equally well to communities and organizations during this unprecedented time.

Download the full report.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Comcast hides upload speeds deep inside its infuriating ordering system



An NBC peacock logo is on the loose and hiding behind the corner of a brick building.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Comcast just released a 2020 Network Performance Data report with stats on how much Internet usage rose during the pandemic, and it said that upload use is growing faster than download use. “Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased approximately 38 percent over 2019 levels and peak upstream traffic increased approximately 56 percent over 2019 levels,” Comcast said.

But while upload use on Comcast’s network quickly grows—driven largely by videoconferencing among people working and learning at home—the nation’s largest home-Internet provider with over 30 million customers advertises its speed tiers as if uploading doesn’t exist. Comcast’s 56 percent increase in upstream traffic made me wonder if the company will increase upload speeds any time soon, so I checked out the Xfinity website today to see the current upload speeds. Getting that information was even more difficult than I expected.

The Xfinity website advertises cable-Internet plans with download speeds starting at 25Mbps without mentioning that upstream speeds are just a fraction of the downstream ones. I went through Comcast’s online ordering system today and found no mention of upload speeds anywhere. Even clicking “pricing & other info” and “view plan details” links to read the fine print on various Internet plans didn’t reveal upload speeds.

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Bank of America is bringing VR instruction to its 4,000 banks



As consumer VR begins to have a moment following years of heavy investment from Facebook and other tech giants, corporate America is similarly beginning to find more utility in the technology, as well.

Bank of America announced today that they’ll be working with Bay Area-based VR startup Strivr to bring more of their workplace training into virtual reality. The financial institution has already used the startup’s tech in a pilot effort with about 400 employees, but a wide-scale rollout means scaling the VR learning platform to more of the company’s 45,000 employees and bringing thousands of VR headsets to its bank branches.

Bank of America exec John Jordan has plenty of ideas of where it will be able to implement the technology most effectively, but is open to experimenting early-on, noting that they’ve developed VR lessons for everything from notary services to fraud detection. Jordan also says that they’re working on more ambitious tasks like helping employees practice empathy with customers dealing with sensitive matters like the death of a relative.

Jordan says the scope of the company’s corporate learning program “The Academy” is largely unmatched among other major companies in the U.S., except perhaps by the employee instruction programs at Walmart, he notes. Walmart has been Strivr’s largest customer since the startup signed the retail behemoth back in 2017 to bring VR instruction to their 200 “Walmart Academy” instruction centers and all Walmart stores.

Virtual reality is a technology that lends itself to capturing undivided attention, something that is undoubtedly positive for increasing learning retention, which Jordan says was one of the central appeals for adopting the tech. For Bank of America, VR offers a platform change to reexamine some of the pitfalls of conventional corporate learning. At the same time, they acknowledge that the tech isn’t a silver bullet and that are plenty of best practices for VR that are still unknowns.

“We’re just taking it slow to be honest,” Jordan says. “We already feel pretty great about how we’ve made investments, but we view this as a way to get better.”

Enterprise VR startups have seen varying levels of success over the years as they’ve aimed to find paying customers that can tolerate the limitations of the technology while buying in on the broader vision. Strivr has raised over $51 million, including a $30 million Series B last year, as it has aimed to become a leader in the workplace training space. CEO Derek Belch tells TechCrunch that the company has big plans as it looks towards raising more funding and works to build out its software toolsets to help simplify VR content creation for its partners.



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Cashify raises $15 million for its second-hand smartphone business in India



Tens of millions of people each year purchase a second-hand smartphone in India, the world’s second largest market. Phone makers and giant online sellers such as Amazon and Flipkart are aware of it, but it’s too much of a hassle for them to inspect, repair, and resell used phones. But these firms also know that customers are more likely to buy a smartphone if they are offered the ability to trade-in their existing handsets.

A startup that is helping these firms tackle this challenge said on Thursday it has raised $15 million in a new financing round. New York-based Olympus Capital Asia made the investment through Asia Environmental Partners, a fund dedicated to the environmental sector. The five-year-old startup, which counts Blume Ventures  among its early investors, has raised $42 million to date.

Cashify operates an eponymous platform — both online and physical stores and kiosks — for users to sell and buy used smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops, desktops, and gaming consoles. 90% of its business today surrounds the smartphone category, explained Mandeep Manocha, founder and chief executive of Cashify, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“For consumers, our proposition is that we make it easy for you to sell your devices. You come to our site or app, answer questions to objectively evaluate the condition of your device, and we give you an estimate of how much your gadget is worth,” he said. “If you like the price, we pick it up from your doorstep and give you instant cash.”

A few years ago, I wrote about the struggle e-commerce firms face globally in handling returned items. There are many liability challenges — such as having to ensure that the innards in a returned smartphone haven’t been tempered with — as well as overhead costs in reversing an order.

Manocha said that phone makers and e-commerce firms have found better ways to handle returned items in recent years, but they still lose a significant amount of money on them. These challenges have created a big opportunity for startups such as Cashify.

In fact, Cashify says it’s the market leader in its category in India. The startup has partnerships with “nearly every OEM” including Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo, Xiaomi, Vivo, and HP. “If you walk into an Apple store today, they use our platform.” For consumers in India, if they opted for the trade-in program, also uses Cashify’s trading platform, he said.

The startup also works with top e-commerce firms in India — Amazon, Flipkart, and Paytm Mall. The firms use Cashify’s trading and exchange software, and also rely on the startup for liquidation of devices. The startup then repairs these gadgets and sells the refurbished units to customers.

“Essentially, whether you come directly to us, or go to popular e-commerce firms or phone OEMs, we are handling the majority of the trading,” he said. Even if a customer trades in the device to OEMs, or e-commerce firms, these companies sell the device to players like Cashify, which serves over 2 million customers in more than 1,500 cities.

The startup plans to deploy part of the fresh capital to expand its presence in the offline market. Manocha said Cashify currently has dozens of offline stores and kiosks at shopping malls across the country and it has already proven immensely effective in brand awareness among customers.

The startup also plans to expand outside of India, hire more talent, and invest more in getting the word out about its offerings. Manocha said the team is also working on expanding its expertise to more hardware categories such as cameras.

“The management team at Cashify has an excellent track record in building a strong consumer-facing franchise and building relationships with OEMs, e-commerce companies and electronic product retailers to be present across all touch points for the consumer,” said Pankaj Ghai, Managing Director of Asia Environmental Partners, in a statement.

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